I have mixed feelings about licensed material forming the basis of an RPG. In some cases, where the universe of the base material is sufficiently expansive (such as Star Wars) it can work. But if the source material is too closely wedded to certain characters (as with Serenity/Firefly) then I am less inclined to enjoy it. The appeal of the original world is simply too closely tied to the personality of the original characters and every game using the setting is going to feel derivative.
That makes Green Ronin‘s latest venture into the world of Westeros from George R.R. Martin’s series of novels a tricky proposition. Part of Martin’s genius is his gift for creating rich memorable characters. On the other hand, Westeros is incredibly detailed and there is such a dedicated fan following that it is hard to fault anyone for making the attempt. There have already been several forays into game design for Martin. There was a previous RPG using the D20 rules. There is a strategy board game, and a card game as well. So Green Ronin has their work cut out for them to distinguish themselves and make a game which will have an impact on this crowded market.
This past Saturday was Free RPG Day and Green Ronin released a preview set of their rules for the game and a test module to be run on the day. I was sufficiently intrigued to run it at Gamescape North in San Rafael and I am extremely pleased to say that this game delivers on everything it promises. I have not been so excited about a new RPG release in quite a while. Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying (SIFRP) is a gritty, elegant, profound game that hits the nail on the head in terms of mood, mechanics, and material.
If you are familiar with the books you’ll know what a mismatch the D20 ruleset was for this material. D20 is all about combat simulation and heroic adventuring whereas Westeros is a place of intrigue, politics and gritty realism. No one should ever take a sword blow and shrug it off as a mere 1d8 hit points damage. Players should fear the very real danger that live steel presents and prefer to solve problems with their wits and careful planning. This game needed a a ruleset that would deliver on a crunchy in-depth intrigue system and Green Ronin has done just that.
Intrigue deserves a post of its own, but I will summarize here. Every character has ratings for Intrigue Defense, Status, Persuasion, Deception, and Composure. Aspects like Disposition and Frustration come into play, also, and you will be choosing to use techniques like Bargaining, Charm, Seduction, Taunting and so on… As an Intrigue progresses in exchanges parties will gradually lose their composure until one person gets the better of the other and gets what they want, which could include information, could be a new friend or ally, or it could be to cause their opponent to lose their cool and do something rash. The possibilities are endless. The system is slick. It is fast to learn and run and it provokes players to be better roleplayers – which is the highest compliment I could possibly pay to it.
Green Ronin also succeed on the fluff. They’ve obviously paid close attention to Martin’s world and done their best to evoke it in mood and flavor without just using canon material. The module they sent had great characters with depth and complexity to them, portraying all the roles the books suggest – a Maester, a Septa, a Bastard, a Knight, a Lord, a Squire… Their descriptions of places and suggestions for NPC’s were on target as well. I do have one criticism of their module design which is that it was way too vanilla to be an adequate introduction. I understand the philosophy that you want to have an introduction be simple since players will all be learning the rules, but I think it is shooting yourself in the foot. You want your first impression to be as good as possible and so they should have put together a module that was far more detailed and highlighted the things about the system that are unique – particularly intrigue. Instead they threw us a story about bandits which could have been in any D20 game.
So, of course, I modified the module heavily. Instead of being mere bandits, they were men hired by a family still loyal to the Targaryens to waylay and kill a Knight on the way to the tournament. There were family feuds and hints of a plot to bring a poisoned blade to the upcoming tournament at King’s Landing – perhaps to kill King Robert in the Melee! I made 9/10 of the game about these intrigues and threw in a little combat with the bandits just to spice it up. Green Ronin could certainly have done more with the module to impress folks, but I’m just happy with how easy it was to concoct all of this intrigue on the basis of the system they’ve made.
This game gets 5 out of 5 stars from me for sheer originality and grace. It is totally different in feel from any medieval fantasy game out there right now and I hope it sells like gangbusters.